This week, Google has launched a new “alternate reality game” designed for Android phone users named Ingress. The story line is definitely unique and tailored to a tech-savvy urban audience, which is why it is ideal for Android owners.
In a nutshell, the purpose of the game is for users to explore the physical world through the camera in their smart phone. Using augmented reality, users collect virtual currency pieces as they walk along pre-mapped paths, turning a leisurely stroll into a collection game similar to Pac-Man. These collectible items can be “cashed in” at other real-world points of interest, such as sculptures, libraries, and public art murals.
Traditionally, alternate reality gaming serves as a way to promote an upcoming product launch or supplement a Hollywood movie – so why is Google getting into the alternate reality gaming scene? Our guess is that Google is using this strategy as a way of collecting data through it’s user base to improve their Maps product, and compete with Nokia’s turn-by-turn urban maps.
Players walk around footpaths and pedestrian routes that Google Maps currently doesn’t cover well. The reward for the user is two-fold; arbitrary points and advancement in the story, and the real world experience of travelling and interacting with public areas that may have been otherwise ignored. All the time the game client is reporting back to Google their position, speed and the like, so Google gets to build a massive database of popular pedestrian-accessible areas and common routes between and around them. Since Geotagged photos and GPS tracking are a major part of the user experience, this data will most certainly be used to Google’s advantage.
If you’ve followed Google’s moves over the years, you know that they have had massive success with using free “pointless” services to optimize their flagship products. For several years, Google operated a 411-style directory assistance service totally free to all users. This allowed Google millions of samples of human voices, dialects, accents, and other useful data that went into Voice Commands for Android and voicemail transcription for Google Voice.
You may also remember Google’s purchase of ReCAPTCHA in 2009. The reason behind this was to once again use user-generated input and data into optimizing a character recognition system which was later tweaked and optimized for the Google Books project.
Some privacy advocates might take issue with the “spying” nature of Ingress, but if past successes show anything, it’s that Google is MASTERFUL at mining and compiling anonymous data from willing participants, and in the end it leads to better and more useful products for the rest of the world.